Category Archive • Technology
January 22, 2005
Cheap flat screens

This is a photograph of my friend Adriana's computer screen. And the whole point of it is that we are looking at it from an angle. And it still works. Apparently flat screens used not to be lookable at from an angle. This made them useless for public display, which is what Adriana needs her computer to be able to do. She needs to be able to share something with a group. Only recently did flat screens learn to do this.


Adriana's computer is quite expensive. But it is noticeable how much cheaper these flat computer screens are getting. All offices kitting themselves up with new computers (it used to be only rather expensive and posh offices), now get flat screens as a matter or routine. Flat screens even seem to be standard with all Dell computers, which are the bog standard ones they advertise with a billion fliers through your letter box.

I have always pretty much assumed that eventually, the price of a consumer item can be measured with a ruler. It eventually costs nothing to make, what with so many people wanting so many of them, so the only question remains is: how much bother is it to store and to cart around the place? Well, flat screens are about as hard to store and distribute as pizza, except that they're even easier because they don't get cold. If you can make and sell an unwieldy thing like a sticking-out TV for fifty quid, then it ought to be possible in due course to make and sell flat screens for a fiver.

What I'm getting at is that the moment when we all decorate our front rooms by having twenty flat screens in them is not far away. Incredibly fancy new software will be needed to make the best of all these screens – lots of separate pictures, one huge picture spread out on all of them, etc. – but software prices follow the same pricing rule. Software also eventually costs whatever it takes to store and distribute it, i.e. even less than pizza.

I wonder what pictures people will want to have. Will they be static or movies, like a wall of TVs all going flat out in Dixons? Will there be a new market for visual stuff to show on such domestic arrays? Presumably. Will old paintings make a come-back in popular taste, given than the same old Old Master doesn't have to bore you to death year after year.

I think I have finally found a reason to regret that I am not a clubber. I am not a clubber because clubs disgust and depress me and always have. But clubs – I guess because all I can do is guess – to do interesting things in the way of pioneering new forms of interior décor. They must have a ton a flat screens in them right now. Yes?

I see that I am repeating myself. This posting here, dating from January 2003, from before the time when I had worked out how to put pictures in my blogs, let alone on flat screens on my living room wall, says most of the same things as this posting today does.

But if it's worth saying, it's worth repeating. Yes, I like that. If something is worth saying once, it is indeed worthy of repetition.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:19 AM
January 12, 2005
The public and the private
I don't tend to have quotes of the day here, but if I did, this might be today's:

Private life in the public eye seems doomed these days, but life out of the public eye fares little better.

Read the rest of that, about the break-up of Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt, here.

To me one of the most interesting things about Being Alive Now has, and for quite a few decades, been the way that the hitherto sacrosanct distinction between the private and the public is getting blurrier every day.

Another of my favourite quotes concerning this odd relationship now concerned what it was like having a private negotiation with Dr Henry Kissinger when he was having one of his bursts of shuttle diplomacy. And yes, that "shuttle" did rather suggest that a mere Boing 747 was too slow for the Flying Doctor and he had to have a spaceship.

Here's the quote:

A conversation with Dr Kissinger at such a time was about as private as the inside of the Eiffel Tower.

Not bad, I reckon. It's one of mine, although I don't believe I ever got around to making it public, no matter how you define that these days.

The point being that once a secret that anyone cares about gets public, it's everyone's, i.e. not a secret any more. If you're Pitt or Anniston, everyone feels entitled to write what they think about you, and entitled or not, they do.

Compare and contrast, as they say, the time – not so long ago – when the fact that the President of the United States, no less. was stuck in a wheel chair was concealed from public view, for year after year after year. Amazing.

Or how about this? - quoted today here:

A Texas computer consultant said he stumbled upon photos of a silver-blue Z06 on the Internet and posted them that afternoon on a Corvette online discussion forum he frequents. Five days later, on Nov. 14, two men from Securitas, GM's contract security firm, knocked on the door of his Houston home demanding to know who gave him the pictures. He said he refused to let them in, and their parting shot was "We’ll see you in court."

As soon as the security men left, the 36-year-old computer consultant, who requested his name not be used, posted details of the visit from the "two goons," as he described them, on two Corvette Web sites. He also posted scanned images of their business cards.

… which is where I first encountered it this morning, and more to the point for the purposes of what I am saying here, here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:05 PM
December 16, 2004
iPod earings

That's it really. What I'm saying is: It's only a matter of time.

"We understood the whole thing with these players can't be just functionality, that we always concentrated on," she said. "People were using them as fashion statements."


And they're getting smaller and smaller. So …

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:45 PM
December 15, 2004
A little bridge near and a big bridge far away

I know, another Millau Viaduct posting, but it's really beautiful and why ever not?

And of all the pictures of it I've looked at lately, I think that this is one of the nicest:


I found this here, but my French is not good. So, is the small bridge in the foreground, down in the valley, the Viaduc Lerouge, as the name of the .jpg file suggests? Don't know. And have to say: don't really care.

Anyway, whatever the name of the little bridge, could you possibly have a finer illustration of how bridge technology has come on since the age of stone arches or nothing? Leaps and bounds is the phrase that springs (ha!) to mind.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:59 PM
December 08, 2004
Taking back the streets

Glenn Reynolds writes at TCS about the trend away from bespoke offices and into working in more public spaces:

The "push" comes from the office environment. If you're reading this column, you have almost certainly also read Dilbert, and I'm tempted to simply cite the comic strip and say "case closed." But there's more to it than that.

Yes, the office environment can be unpleasant, and the commute can be nasty and time-consuming (and expensive), too. That's one reason people like to work at home. But working at home has its own problems, since it can be hard to maintain the work/non-work boundaries. And who wants to meet with clients in your den?

On the other hand, offices are expensive. I've noticed a lot of small business people in my area giving up their offices, and having meetings in public places -- Starbucks, Borders, the Public Library, and so on. In fact, a real estate agent recently told me that the small-office commercial real estate market is actually suffering as a result of so many people making this kind of move.

The "push" comes from people wanting to get out of offices. But the "pull" comes from the technology that makes it possible, and from the desire of businesses to cash in. Personal tech like laptops, PDAs, cellphones, etc., coupled with wi-fi and other technologies that allow Internet access from all over, means that you don't need to be at the office nearly as much anymore.

If a home is, in Le Corbusier's words, a "machine for living," then an office is a "machine for working." But nowadays, the machinery is looking a bit obsolescent. The traditional office took shape in the 19th Century, and the shape it took was in no small part the result of technology: the need for people to be close to each other, and to services like telegraphs, telephones, messengers and (later) faxes, copy machines, and computers.

You can pretty much carry all that stuff with you now. And people are doing it.

That means that there's a market for places that cater to them. Right now we're seeing the early phase of that, with amenities that focus on wi-fi and lattes. In time, we're likely to see a lot more than that. …

Indeed. I had a latte in the Pimlico Café Nero earlier this afternoon, and got some blogging work done, in the form of hand scribbled notes aimed at a longish blog posting that I will do Real Soon Now. But although I am not laptopped up and nor were most of the other Café Nerotics, I did see one young woman using a laptop with great enthusiasm. She had headphones on as well and was chatting happily into them. Business or pleasure? Both, would be my guess.

TV took everyone indoors during the hours of darkness and left the streets clear for the criminals (of the sort who didn't own couches and TVs), and the TV shows themselves then set about cranking out the next three or four generations of criminals, by showing them how very exciting it was to be a criminal. Now the Internet is (a) putting on a more intelligent, less criminal-creating kind of a show, and (b) taking us all back into the streets, re-establishing a modern rerun of couples promenading through the streets and raising their top hats to one another.

And if you add (c ) the portable phone, which means that you can already now run great gobs of your business from anywhere, without even sitting down, let alone being indoors in a fixed place of work, it adds up to something not unlike a revolution, or at any rate a counter-revolution.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:38 PM
November 30, 2004
Billion Monkey snaps self in Harley Davidson

Busy day, so instead of proper blogging, more stupid photos of things reflected off a shiny surface.

This was the big picture:


And here were two little pictures I took of myself. Click to make them bigger.


My poor little camera was set on automatic, and it had a hard time deciding what to focus on, but it did okay, I hope you agree.

This mighty, shiny, machine was and as far as I know still is parked outside a shop in the Kings Road that sells things like Harley Davidson handbags and Harley Davidson deodorant. Or I think that's what it sells. To be honest (my sister said to me when last we met and I used this expression: "Does this mean that normally you aren't?") I didn't look, on account of not caring.

And yes, I have had a hair cut. I do not need to be told this. I was fully conscious at the time, and I myself paid for this to be done.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:55 PM
November 29, 2004
The B with wings in November

Another photo for Tatyana's son (see comments here). It's the same car. But the view is slightly different, and the leaves on the trees have now gone.


Click to get the same thing bigger.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:56 AM
November 24, 2004
Computers have indeed come along nicely – but where are the flying cars?

Thanks to Dale Amon for the link to this. However, as Dale quickly discovered, it turned out to be untrue, an example not of false prognostication, but of more recent computer graphics.

I especially like the steering wheel …

Which reminds me: Where are the flying cars? I was promised flying cars!!

My point is, yes, we can scoff at the primitive ideas people did indeed have (as Dale rightly points out) circa 1950 about computers, but think how primitive our cars still are, circa 2000.

This one (thank you Dan Prinzing commenting at Transport Blog) looks quite good though.

This (thank you Tom – also commenting at Transport Blog), on the other hand, and like the one I originally wrote about, is just another clunky little airplane.

However, it looks very fetching, especially in this photo of it by Jason Bynum - which I am taking the liberty blah blah …


… - and looking very fetching counts for a lot around here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:38 PM
November 17, 2004
TVs – they're getting bigger and they're getting flatter

Here are a couple of pictures of TVs, both snapped on the electric toys floor of a big London department store.

These are the bigger ones:


… and these are the flatter ones:


Click on these pics to get even more tellies!

By and large the bigger ones aren't flat yet, and the flat ones aren't big yet, although you can get anything at a price. And the little ones at the back of the top picture aren't either big or flat, merely cheap.

But … the age of the big, flat, cheap TVs cannot be far away.

Incidentally, I have started to notice boxes to stick next to your TV that record TV programmes onto a hard disc rather than only tape, or even rewritable DVDs. I think I might soon be in the market for one of these. The Yanks call these TiVos, yes? Or is that something rather different? Or would it make more sense for me to get a machine that can make DVDs as well.

At present I can't seem to be able to record digital TV onto tape. It goes all wonky. Presumably a box like this would not misbehave thus. ?

Anyone got any opinions about these gadgets?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:32 PM
October 29, 2004
Here come the Fifth Element cars!

I'm busy lashing up a TransportBlog posting, following on from this Samizdata posting about air taxis, and in connection with that, I want this image ….


… up here, so I can link to it from there. Click to get it lots bigger.

The Fifth Element (and by the way these storyboards are worth a look if you are the arty type) has always struck me as a hugely under-rated movie, from the urban futurology point of view. It deserves, from that point of view, at least equal billing with Blade Runner, which I believe is only liked as much as it is because it says (with the usual absurdly short and impatient SF timeframe – it's set round about now, as I recall) that the weather is about to become permanently horrible.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:42 PM
October 17, 2004
Be afraid

Instapundit, of all people, links to this menacing instrument:


Although, now I come to think of it, I seem to recall him being some kind of musician himself.

Announcing the World's First Complete Digital Accordion

Roland is pleased to introduce another milestone in digital musical instrument history – the V-Accordion. Models FR-7 and FR-5 are the first instruments of their type to successfully integrate powerful digital technology such as new Physical Behavior Modeling (PBM) into a traditional accordion design, offering performance features and authentic sounds that appeal to a wide range of musical styles.

People in leather shorts and braces, but with modernistically coloured hairdos, will soon be emitting techno-folk-music.

There have long been electro-pianos capable of reproducing all sounds ever made, able to redo the Ode to Joy in the manner of a chorus of barking dogs or orgasmic actresses or foghorns. Now, this device has gone portable.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:54 PM
October 04, 2004
Thoughts on DVD opera

Incoming email from Alan Little:

You might find this interesting, from Tyler Cowen et al's excellent libertarian economics blog Marginal Revolution: The DVD format is taking over the classical music world, especially opera.

I don't think music DVDs will be all that relevant for me. Even if they're as cheap as CDs and have at-least-as-good sound quality (I know audio-only DVD is supposed to be great, albeit a stillborn format; I haven't really seriously listened to how good movie DVD soundtracks are), they're still not relevant to my music-listening life. I mostly listen to music while doing other things, whereas a DVD expects you to sit down and give it your undivided attention. With a toddler in the house my attention is almost never undivided. I would consider buying DVDs if they were cheap and there was an easy way to get the audio off of them into a usable format (CD or mp3) – I do know how to do this but it's laborious and I really don't think I could be bothered on a regular basis.

The point passed on (from Klaus Heyman of Naxos) by the Marginal Revolutionary Tyler Cowen about DVDs of opera is that opera on DVD is now starting to sell massively better than opera on CD, i.e. opera with only the sound. Thus, although DVD-ing an opera is presumably at least as bothersome as merely recording it, and copying the DVD is no easier, DVDs of opera, because many more are willing to buy them if the price is right, are now roaring down the supply/demand curve, and are thus finding their profitable price to be way below that of opera on CD.

Which is obvious, because opera is a dramatic thing as well as an audio thing. I am so obsessed with classical music that I have lots of CDs of operas, because I love the sound they make. But trawling through the libretto to find out what the hell they are singing about (seldom in English of course) is very irksome, and you miss lots of excitement by not being able to see, e.g. Wagner giants or Queens of the Night or Czars of Russia or Kings of Egypt, plus all their assembled minions. Obviously. So, although I can just about be doing with opera on CD (I bought the new René Jacobs Marriage of Figaro only yesterday), opera on DVD has already been a godsend to me.

I also have a few operas on VHS, but they are terrible. They look terrible, and above all, NO SUBTITLES. DVDs, in addition to be far nicer to look at, DO HAVE SUBTITLES. This is crucial for me.

I like DVD operas even when the production is weird, as they tend to be for Ring Cycle operas, for example, with dams and goldfish bowls instead of the Rhine, 1920s society hostesses instead of Norse Goddesses, and (my favourite Wagnabsurdity so far) scruffy librarians waving enormously long spears in the Boulez/Bayreuth Gotterdammerung. (Is the idea is that they are losing their grip, having inherited power that they no longer know how to use? Maybe that's it.)

(Wagnabsurdity. Did I just think of that word? I mean, I did, but who else has?)

However, what Alan Little says about undivided attention is also very, very true. When I sit down to watch a DVD, any DVD, I have to look at it and listen to it, and I have to look and listen continuously or I lose the plot, literally. This also is very irksome, and DVDs don't answer this problem. They are this problem, as Alan says.

Now I agree that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony packs a hell of a lot more punch if you concentrate on that all the way though also, but the fact is that if you do a blog posting or some work-work or something during the second movement and completely ignore it banging away in the background, but then tune in again to the last movement, you can still get a lot out of that experience. Music, to refer back to this quote (which I notice Alan also liked and quoted) music happens now, and if all you do is tune into it now, having ignored all that went before, you get a great deal of what it is saying. Tuning into an opera now, in the middle of an act, means you miss the point.

To put it another way, DVDs of opera have the potential to break out of the ghetto of being listened to only by people who already love this music, like me. Opera can be, as it used to be before the gramophone was invented, in the vanguard of classical musical publicity, instead of staggering along at the rear the way it has for the last fifty years or so. (Opera arias are a complete other matter!)

I need two things before I go mad with operatic DVDs.

First (originally I put this second – but actually it is first), I need for the DVD opera sellers to stop trying to gouge twenty five quid per opera out of me, and to settle for a tenner. After all, that's all that they now charge me for Lawrence of Arabia, which was a hell of a lot more of a bother to make even than an opera DVD. It may not seem fair to them but sorry, twenty five quid is more than I can get into the habit of spending. (Economics – I am becoming more and more convinced – is all about the cost of habits rather than just of individual items.)

And second, when that negotiation between supply and demand has finally been settled in my favour, for lots of DVD operas if not all of them, I will then be wanting a good fat book called Opera on DVD, which surely must exist, but which I never seem to come across in bookshops, even in the shelves groaning with guides to classical CDs. The Internet is great at giving me the best price on an opera DVD that I have already decided I want, but I need to decide what I want in the first place. Anyone know of a book like that? Or a website? The point is not prices, in the sense of £11.99 instead of £14.99. Once I know what I want, I can keep an eye open for it, and buy it when I see it cheap enough. Or, I can finally get into the buying-stuff-from-the-Internet habit, which so far I have not done because I like to combine shopping with taking some exercise. What I want is comparative reviews, of things like, say, all the four regularly available DVDs out there of Turandot (plus of the new DVD of Turandot which has just come out), which are descriptively helpful as well as (which is fair enough) opinionated, so that even if he hates it I will be able to tell that I might like it, or vice versa, so that I know what I am looking for.

I'd even consider regularly buying a monthly magazine entirely devoted to opera on DVD, with opera on CD only mentioned in a sneering little page near the end laced with yet more DVD propaganda.

Caution one. Forget about video. It has to be DVDs. (See above.)

Caution two. I don't want an "Internet Site" where I can spend thousands of happy hours chatting about why the Levine New York Met Ring is better/worse than the Boulez Bayreuth Ring, and why the latest one from Germany is barking bonkers etc. etc.. I do not have these hours. More fundamentally, such hours would not be happy. I am not that fond of my fellow classical music enthusiasts. Mad, sad bastards the lot of them, as good as, as far as I'm concerned, and I bet that's just how most of them feel about me. If all that Alan Little and I had in common was a liking for classical music then – no offence (as people say when they are about to be offensive) – I wouldn't be interested. Happily he is also a blogger, and a general discusser of all manner of other things that also interest me. An entirely different proposition.

Even if both of those conditions are fulfilled I probably won't go mad. I like opera, every now and again. Real opera lovers love it. Obviously. (As this person would say. Good that she's found her blog voice again.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:26 PM
September 29, 2004

My assumption has for long been that the Next Big Thing in music, movie, etc., storage is going to be accessing it from the Internet, rather than keeping in the form of Things, at home. In fact, this already is the Big Thing.

But there may be life in smaller Things for a few decades yet. I refuse to buy CDs for twice as much, even if they are in "SACD" super-surround orgasmasound with quadropheniac nobs on. But, if the price is right, I might consider getting the entire output of Beethoven, in SACD etc., on one disc.

Well, I probably wouldn't. But future generations might.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:59 PM
September 09, 2004
A tale of two posters

I spent most of my blogging time this evening concocting this, so only time for a quicky here, in the form of a snap taken in the Underground of a movie poster:


I like this poster a lot, if only because of the cricket bat. How often do you see cricket bats in movie posters? And wielded by the leading man?

But there is another reason to pay attention to this poster, which is that it illustrates an interesting trend. Look carefully. This is not an advert for the cinema release of this movie. It is an advert for the DVD and the video. I remember being very struck when I first noticed this trend, which has surely only happened since the arrival of DVD.

Here, by way of contrast, is the poster for the original cinema release. No sign of that splodge of yellowness. What's that about?


That was to be seen a lot on phone boxes. Which makes sense, I think you will agree.

Interesting that the DVD poster makes great play of quotes from the critics, the way the cinema poster doesn't. Presumably this reflects the fact that the adult stay-at-home audience is the one that buys the DVDs and adults pay more attention to critics. I certainly find that I do, now, as I get more … mature.

Prediction In a few years time, DVDs and DVD players will have got so good that cinemas will in many cases simply be big DVD playing rooms, with both domestic machines and cinemas using the same software. Why not? Under the influence of the copying menace, movies will get more numerous, but on average "smaller", with the big hits being surprise successes rather than big blockbuster pre-crafted smash hits of the sort that will immediately attract piratical attention.

Michael Jennings will be giving my next Last Friday of the Month talk, on the 24th, about the impact of new technology on the workings of Hollywood, and although he may not talk about this particular matter (what with the impact of new technology on Hollywood being such a huge subject), I will try to remember to ask him about this. He has already told me that in his opinion the copying of big movies is done by treacherous Hollywood insiders (in a manner that Hollywood doesn't like to talk about) rather than by people sneaking into cinemas with cameras (the story Hollywood prefers).

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:37 PM
September 07, 2004
Books and E-books

Last night I did a posting on Samizdata, about books, and about what fine things they are and what a great future they have. They certainly do in my flat. I asked about the history of book binding, because that is what makes books so convenient, and a commenter (Tatyana – thank you Tatyana) supplied this link. Bending-outwards books spines with titles would appear to have been sorted out earlier than I thought, in Italy – but presumably only at crippling expense.

SonyLibrie.jpgBut the comments also turned towards E-books, and another commenter supplied a link to this gizmo, the Sony Librie.

The important thing about it is that its screen is a lot more like paper than the traditional computer screen. It is not back lit, any more than paper is when you read that.

Here's what Dalmaster said:

Reading from a traditional laptop doesn't allow the same kind of comfort as reading a book, even when small and light, they're often noisy and more difficult to read. Even take out all the things you don't need, make it book-sized, you have the problem of the screen.

Several organisations have developed their own paper-like displays to solve this problem. They are pleasant to look at, require only a small amount of power (it takes power to change the picture, but it stays, rather than requiring frequent refreshing like a traditional tube, tft or lcd). Only drawback is that they're currently only black and white, and only available in Japan.

Which is surely a drawback that won't last.

Google google.

More Librie comment (and more Librie links) here:

First, the good news. Initial reports of the screen quality left me quite unprepared for the actual thing. The screen is unbelievable. Not quite paper, more like a dull plastic like look. My first impression of the device was that it was not an actual working unit, but a plastic mock up made for stores. With high contrast black text on a reflective background, the screen has a readability rivaling actual paper. The weight of the book is also quite a shock. About the weight of a long paperback, the book will be both easy on the eyes as well as very easy to hold and carry around.

Running on 4 AAA batteries, the book is supposed to last 10,000 page turns, more than enough for extended trips, and the use of standard batteries ensures you'll never be stuck in a lurch.

Additional features include a memory stick slot for adding additional space for your library or BBeB formatted dictionary cards, a keyboard for using said dictionaries, and a well designed removable integrated screen cover. You can select text from a document and run it through a built in dictionary for a definition or even an English translation. A huge thing is the ability to play embedded audio files through a small built in speaker or earphone plug.

Overall this is a sharp, stylish, package with cutting edge technology. The perfect new gadget if it weren't for.

Then follows the bad news, which is bad, I do agree. But with technology like this, the good news stays good and gets even better, and the bad news just slides away into a puddle and is forgotten.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:36 PM
July 22, 2004
Hating what we have – loving what we lose

Arts & Letters Daily links to an article which kicks off from a thought that has been close to my heart for some time now, especially the parking lot reference:

Many years ago, I was supposed to move to Los Angeles, but every time I went there, something about the light and space made me think that life was basically meaningless and you might as well surrender hope right away. I was still an art critic in those days, and I would drive from north-east of Los Angeles, where I was supposed to settle into my new suburban existence, over to the downtown museums, look at some art, and drive back. But when I got home I would find that the hours I'd spent negotiating freeway merge lanes and entrances and exits and parking garages was, in some mysterious way, more memorable than the museums. I was supposed to have a head full of paintings or installations, but instead, I was preoccupied with the anonymously ugly spaces that are not on the official register of what any place is supposed to be.

Every city has them. Thinking about Paris is more likely to bring to mind the Eiffel Tower, or graceful rows of mansard-roofed buildings on chestnut-lined boulevards, than the long cement passages of the Métro lit by bad fluorescence and smelling of piss, or the dank passageways descending from cafés into Turkish toilets. Even national parks steer their visitors into an asphalted world of public toilets, parking lots, and thou-shalt-not signage, stuff that almost everyone is good at fast-forwarding past to the waterfalls and forest glades and elk doing ungulate things in public. Certainly a waterfall is more striking than the parking lot near its foot, but I wonder how it is that visitors can be so sure they saw what they were supposed to and so oblivious of what they were not.

Human aesthetic response is very strange. Very strange. One day, a totally different way of getting around to the automobile will be devised. Something involving jet-packs or helicopters or gravity engines that enable vehicles to travel the way they do in The Fifth Element (an architecturally fascinating movie, I think you will agree). And at that exact moment, all the automobile crap we now complain about – the motorways, motorway intersections, signposts, petrol stations, and car parks – will suddenly acquire the charm of a village made of thatched cottages. Those big and complicated motorway intersections will remain as great big picturesque ruins and be clambered over by tourists armed with whatever has replaced digital cameras. I mean, Spaghetti Junction has all the makings of a future Stone Henge.

By the same token, when thatched cottages was all there was, I'm absolutely sure that people went around saying: bloody thatched cottages.

Or to put it another way, as I once heard it put, as soon as pylons stop being put up and start being taken down, the Society for the Preservation of Pylons will at once be formed, and people will go out and spot them, the way they now spot steam locomotives.


Pylons photoed by me from the train, in northern France, on my Brussels trip earlier this year.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:10 AM
April 17, 2004
Big Music worries about Africa

The boss of Universal explains how Africa and Universal are on the same side in the CD music copying argument:

"What is now happening, which is very scary, is a deterioration of morals in how the consumer views piracy. They see it as a victimless crime. They don’t feel sorry for the music industry. There has been a change in perception caused by the popularity of blank CDs. People say that if a blank costs 10p, why do recorded discs cost £12? Their answer is that we must be ripping them off. They forget the cost in recording it.

"We cannot see these misguided people simply as thieving bastards – we have to try to educate them and show them how much it’s damaging the cultural environment."

Larsen cites Africa as showing the worst that can happen if piracy is allowed to run rife. "There was a time when we and other music majors had an office in six or seven African nations," he says. "Now, there is nothing between the Mediterranean and Johannesburg. We used to record a lot of local music. Now the only way you can hear it is if you go to a bar in Nairobi. There's nothing wrong with live music, but you can't share it with the world. So you destroy that cultural diversity in music."

You can read the whole thing here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:59 PM
April 05, 2004
Mad Professors

The record industry believes – to hell with that, it knows – that file sharing is hurting its sales of CDs. Yet here come two economists (see today's New York Times) who say the opposite:

But what if the industry is wrong, and file sharing is not hurting record sales?

It might seem counterintuitive, but that is the conclusion reached by two economists who released a draft last week of the first study that makes a rigorous economic comparison of directly observed activity on file-sharing networks and music buying.

"Downloads have an effect on sales which is statistically indistinguishable from zero, despite rather precise estimates," write its authors, Felix Oberholzer-Gee of the Harvard Business School and Koleman S. Strumpf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The industry has reacted with the kind of flustered consternation that the White House might display if Richard A. Clarke showed up at a Rose Garden tea party. Last week, the Recording Industry Association of America sent out three versions of a six-page response to the study.

The problem with the industry view, Professors Oberholzer-Gee and Strumpf say, is that it is not supported by solid evidence. Previous studies have failed because they tend to depend on surveys, and the authors contend that surveys of illegal activity are not trustworthy. "Those who agree to have their Internet behavior discussed or monitored are unlikely to be representative of all Internet users," the authors wrote.

Instead, they analyzed the direct data of music downloaders over a 17-week period in the fall of 2002, and compared that activity with actual music purchases during that time. Using complex mathematical formulas, they determined that spikes in downloading had almost no discernible effect on sales. Even under their worst-case example, "it would take 5,000 downloads to reduce the sales of an album by one copy," they wrote. "After annualizing, this would imply a yearly sales loss of two million albums, which is virtually rounding error" given that 803 million records were sold in 2002. Sales dropped by 139 million albums from 2000 to 2002.

"While downloads occur on a vast scale, most users are likely individuals who would not have bought the album even in the absence of file sharing," the professors wrote.

In an interview, Professor Oberholzer-Gee said that previous research assumed that every download could be thought of as a lost sale. In fact, he said, most downloaders were drawn to free music and were unlikely to spend $18 on a CD.

"Say I offer you a free flight to Florida," he asks. "How likely is it that you will go to Florida? It is very likely, because the price is free." If there were no free ticket, that trip to Florida would be much less likely, he said. Similarly, free music might draw all kinds of people, but "it doesn't mean that these people would buy CD's at $18," he said.

This is Mad Professor talk. Counter-intuitive? Make that bonkers. Crazy. These guys call themselves economists but they clearly don't have any understanding of economic behaviour, otherwise known as shopping. None at all. Not the faintest notion. Who is paying these fools? Why?

They have analysed the behaviour of people who are musical downloaders and who are not CD buyers, and have discovered – surprise surprise – that they download stuff from time to time, but don't ever buy CDs. Cock-a-doodle-do.

The point is not just to observe that "these people wouldn't have bought CDs anyway", but to understand why they wouldn't. And why they wouldn't is that these non CD buyers have stopped being or never in the first place became CD buyers. All the Professors are saying is that downloaders are not CD buyers, ergo, downloading doesn't in the short run "affect" CD buying. This is like saying that, because I won't buy a black plastic record or a cassette of some particular recording if denied the opportunity to buy it on CD (which I definitely won't), CDs therefore have had no impact on black plastic sales or cassettes, when in truth, and as everyone with two brain cells to rub together knows, CDs pretty much destroyed the black plastic and cassette trade.

What these guys are saying is that because, if your car breaks down, you don't immediately hire a horse, therefore cars haven't hurt the horse trade.

I am an unashamed member of the CD buying generation, as all regulars here will know. Having struggled for a quarter of a century first with black plastic records and then with cassettes, I and my contemporaries hit the CD shops when they finally arrived and became reasonably cheap to shop in like Visigoths hitting Rome, and so it has continued. I love the things, and not just the music they make but the things themselves.

But the next generation, when working out how to supply itself with entertainment in general and musical entertainment in particular, looked at CDs and said: pass. And why? Well, lots of reasons, to do with price and portability and computers, but mainly because there was now another way to get hold of music. They turned their backs on CDs because they could. They may possess CD players, on the same sort of basis that I possess a cassette player, to play back tapes of radio broadcasts and whatnot, but they don't buy pre-recorded CDs. Ergo the CD business is collapsing, and the music companies know this, and know why, just as everyone else does, apart from these two Mad Professors.

For a restatement of the above truisms, see also this, which makes sense. The Mad Professors do not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:57 PM
April 01, 2004
Space (sponsor)ship

shuttlead.jpgI put up a brand-X posting about private enterprise in space on Samizdata, but this picture, included in a comment by paul d s was what got most of the rest of the comments.

The parallels between the next wave of space travel and the second wave of ship-borne exploration of the rest of the world by Europeans are there, but they are not exact. When Captain Cooke landed in what became Australia there was no live TV coverage of the event, or instant communication of the news back to earth. The first settlements in America were not built in order to accommodate European tourists. But European flags were planted on alien shores, to the greater glory of the sponsors back home.

Robert Heinlein wrote a short story a long time ago, entitled The Man Who Sold The Moon, about a guy who managed to get Coke and Pepsi to shell out two fortunes, merely to keep the other's logo off the moon. Just as well. A logo on the moon would have really taken some doing. Logos on space rockets are a far better bet, like the picture says.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:38 PM
March 27, 2004
Global villagers

A friend of mine was about to dine with a friend of mine, and friend 1(F1) was within about five minutes walk of the home of F2 where he was to dine, but realised he didn't know exactly when F2 was expecting him. F1 had a mobile phone with him, but didn't have F2's number. He did have a number for another friend of mine, and more to the point of his, F1's, so he rang F3 on F3's portable. F3 was quickly able to give F1 F2's number. F1 could then ring F2, and find out when he needed to arrive.

mcluhan.jpgAnd now here comes the "cultural" bit. F1 and F2 were both in London, SW1. But at the time all this went on, F3 was in Prague.

The man on the right is called Marshall McLuhan, who, to the best of my knowledge, coined the phrase "Global Village", although maybe it was some other guy, and he merely made the phrase famous.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:29 PM
March 14, 2004
Ceefax photos

Warning: this post stretches the meaning of the "culture", but: see above.

I had to put these pictures somewhere, and the truth is that it is a whole lot easier sticking pictures up at your own blog than anywhere else. None of that do you actually want pictures?, how big shall I make them?, how do you centre them? nonsense.

I suppose I could pass these things off as pictures of where I blog, of the sort that are buzzing about the blogosphere just now. Thus:


Okay, so there's the computer screen on the lower right, and above there's lots of gunk too brightly light by the, you know, lights, and on the left, that would be …? A TV set perhaps? But what story does it tell? Let us look closer.


Yikes on a bike.

That was the actually decisive moment. Lara c Flintoff b Hoggard 0. At that point it was all over. So, I know you want to know how it all finished. Well basically, this was what happened:


… which meant the following:


Note the brightness of the lettering, and the strangely disturbing, even nihilistic black background. These images capture the profoundly evanescent nature of media imagery in our modern technological society, both in the obsolescence of the technology being used, and in the fundamental emphemerality of the message being conveyed. Plus, the Windies got a right stuffing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:16 PM
February 05, 2004
It's a camera ... a digital camera

I know it's pathetic, but I think this is rather cool.



I saw one in a digicam shop window, and it's really cute, and very small, just like the cigarette lighter it mimics.

And yet, to be rational about it, many of my friends have digital cameras that mimic portable phones, and the portable phones work as well.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:36 PM
February 03, 2004
Paul Johnson on the early spread of printing

Paul Johnson's vast book called Art: A New History (all 777 pages of it) is a most inconvenient volume. It is very big and heavy and unwieldy, and almost every page seems to contain beautiful illustrations of one sort or another. Also, my copy of it was purchased brand new, which is not my usual practice at all. To me books are cheap and expendable, and meanwhile to be treated without care, preferably purchased second hand for next to nothing. Trying to read this book is like having a priceless first edition on my desk all the time, which it may one day be, I suppose. Yet despite all this, as the posting yesterday (see immediately below) illustrates, I am now dipping into this book, and today I came across an interesting description in it of the early spread of the very printing technology, the modern manifestation of which made this book possible.

At least when reading Paul Johnson's book I don't have to worry about spilling coffee on a Gutenberg Bible. Here's how he describes (on pp. 200-201) the way that was created:

In the years 1446-48, two Mainz goldsmiths, Johann Gutenberg and Johann Fust, made use of cheap paper to introduce a critical improvement in the way written pages were reproduced. Printing from wooden blocks was an old method. The Romans used it in textiles. It was the means by which the Mongol Empire ran a paper currency. By 1400, on both sides of the Alps, devotional pictures and playing-cards were being mass-produced by this method. What the Mainz team did was to invent moveable type for the letterpress. It had three merits: it could be used repeatedly until worn out. It was cast in metal from a mould and so could be renewed without difficulty. And it made lettering uniform. In 1450, Gutenberg began work on his Bible, the first printed book, known as the Gutenberg, or Forty-Two-Line Bible, from the number of lines on each page. It was completed in 1455 and is a marvel. As Gutenberg, apart from getting the key idea, had to solve a lot of practical problems, such as typefounding and punch-cutting, devices for imposing paper and ink into the process, and the actual printing itself, for which he adapted the screw-press used by vintners, it is amazing that his first product does not look at all rudimentary. Those who handle it are struck by its clarity and quality. It is a triumph of fifteenth-century German craftsmanship at its best. Indeed, it is a work of art, in the true sense: the application of manual and intellectual skills to produce a thing of beauty, as well as use. Gutenberg was an artist, and a very important one in the history of art, for the spread of black-and-white reproductions in books, which could be hand-coloured, did more to internationalise art than any other factor.

Which is of great interest to this blog, because most of the art experienced here tends to be either mass produced in and of itself, by such things as printing presses, or reproduced and served up here by similar means.


But now in this next bit, which follows on immediately from the quote above, Johnson deals with something which has always puzzled and bothered me, but which I have not read about very much, namely the extreme hideousness and illegibility of the so-called Gothic typefaces used especially by those early German printers. To my eye Gothic makes all letters look the same, which is hardly what you want with a typeface, now is it?

Well, it seems that I'm not the first to have been scornful of this extraordinarily ugly piece of design, which is plainly a creature of the pen, yet which was dumped, so to speak, onto the printing press. I suppose Germans in those days were used to it. But happily the Germans, much though we all owe them for inventing printing in the first place, were unable to make their Gothic habit spread, beyond the opening credits of war movies of course, as Paul Johnson relates:

Printing was one of those technical revolutions which developed its own momentum at extraordinary speed. Christian Europe in the fifteenth century was a place where intermediate technology, as we now call it – that is, workshops with skilled craftsmen – was well-established and spreading fast, especially in Germany and Italy. Such workshops were able to take on printing easily, and it thus became Europe's first true industry. The process was aided by two factors: the new demand for cheap classical texts, which were becoming available anyway, and the translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible into 'modern' languages. Works of reference were also in demand. The first printed encyclopaedia, the Catholicon, appeared in 1460. The next year, the first printed Bible for laymen appeared, quickly followed by the Bible in German, the first printed book in the vernacular. Presses sprang up in several German cities, and by 1470, Nuremberg had established itself as the centre of the international publishing trade, printing books from twenty-four presses and distributing them along trade routes and at trade fairs all over western and central Europe. The old monastic scriptoria worked closely alongside the new presses, continuing to produce the luxury goods that moveable-type printing could not yet supply. Printing aimed at a cheap mass sale. In 1471 the first best-seller appeared, Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ, which by 1500 had gone through ninety-nine editions.

Though there was no competition between the technologies (at Augsburg, the printing presses and the old monastic scriptorium were in the same building), there was rivalry between nations. The Italians made energetic and successful efforts to catch up with Germany. Their most successful scriptorium, at the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco near Rome, quickly imported two leading German printers to set up presses in their book-producing shop. Italian printers had one advantage. German printers worked with the complex typeface the Italians sneeringly referred to as 'Gothic' and which later became known as Black Letter. Outside Germany, readers found this typeface offputting. The Italians had their own clear version of the Carolingian minuscule. This became known as Roman, and was the type of the future. In 1458, Charles VII of France, impressed by the Gutenberg Bible, sent his leading artist-craftsman, Nicolas Jenson, master of the royal mint at Tours, to Mainz, in order to learn 'the art of printing'. But Jenson, having become an expert printer, refused to return to France. Instead he went to Venice and set up what became the most famous printing press in the world. The fonts of Roman type he cut were exported and imitated all over Europe. From 1490 he had a rival: Aldus Manutius, whose Venice press designed and used a practical Greek type for printing the classics, now available and in huge demand among scholars. He also introduced and made popular, c.1501-20, a slanting type based on the cursive hand used in the papal chancery. The international trade called it Italic, and entire books were printed in it before it slipped into its modern role of use for emphasis and quotation.

Hence, although the Germans made use of the paper revolution to introduce moveable type, the Italians went far to regain the initiative by their artistry and their ability to produce luxury items. By 1500 there were printing firms in sixty German cities, but there were 150 presses in Venice alone. …

So that's how it got called Italic.

Good stuff. I keep having to relearn this lesson. You don't have to read books in the correct order and all the way through. And Johnson's book especially seems to be the kind that will reward casual dipping.

Expect further dips from it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:58 PM
January 18, 2004
On the aesthetics of gadgets

Reading Virginia Postrel's The Substance of Style didn't tell me much that I didn't know, but it encouraged me to think more about how technically advanced and advancing electronics-based products do and do not benefit from the input of aestheticians. And I was also caused to think some more about such things by this link from Alex Singleton's personal techy-blog to this rather stylish computer. It is small, cute, and made out of just one piece of aluminium, and with a flat and empty top. And see also this picture of Perry de Havilland's new computer.

Perry's new computer has a curvy top. I prefer flat and empty tops for this kind of beast (also for music boxes), such as the thing Alex linked to has, because then you can put other gadgets on top, and pens, and paper clips and biros and Disprin and plates of food and cups of coffee. My new digital radio is wondrous, but I can't put stuff on top of it, and my new digital TV add-on is shaped not like a book but like a bug and is most inconvenient. Here is a case where being "aesthetic" is a downright negative.

The trouble with getting all aesthetic about computers, aside from the trouble caused by doing it badly, is that the technology is not stable. Imagine how car design would be if every two years or so they invented a whole new subsystem you had to bolt onto the thing. But actually, car design is stable. That is why the aesthetics department of car companies is so large and so important and so commercially vital. Aesthetics can regularly make the difference between car famine and car feast, and once you've perfected your new design, it can, with a bit of ducking and weaving, last quite a few years.

Not so with computers. By the nature of computer technology, extra bits of junk accumulate all the time. Techies may reply: ah but you can stuff it all inside, and thus ensure the aesthetic integrity of that cool box. Yes, but non-techies are the ones most influenced by aesthetics, and non-techies prefer to just add things on by adding them on, on the outside. (This is why the USB standard for adding on add-ons is so important to us non-techies.)

That said, computer technology is now more stable than it was ten years ago, and for that reason, computers of all kinds are becoming more aesthetic. Think Apple. The trend now is more towards buying a very similar machine every few years to the one you had before for far less money, or towards buying a massively more powerful machine than the one you had for the same money, but with the basic architecture and functioning of the machine changing less now than it was changing ten years ago. Computers are becoming more carlike, in other words. Hence, as with cars, the boxes are getting rather prettier.

The other things that influence whether gizmo aesthetics are worth bothering with are expense, and portability, which are closely related of course. Portability equals small. And with luck, small may mean cheap, and hence replaceable in entirely every year or two.

My new digital camera is very aesthetic, and yours too no doubt, if you have one. Why? Because digital cameras don't have add-ons. When digital camera technology does its customary leap forward every eighteen months the only ways to respond are either by getting a new camera, or by making do with the old one. Add-ons get added on in the design stage. Users aren't going to cart them around in their pockets.

(Although, I do sometimes carry with me my little widget for stuffing the photos on my Flash Card into other people's computers. Aesthetically, this gadget bears no relation to my camera. By the way, being able to take this little thing on holiday with me is part of why I didn't want to bolt it irrevocably into my big box computer.)

It is noticeable that aesthetics has a far greater impact on the shaping of portable computers than it does on the shaping of the big bastard non-portable computers of the sort that I have. This is because, for the kind of people who buy them, portable computers are actually very cheap (corporate petty cash) and are hence replaced every year or two in their entirety, and because portable computer people can't be doing with carting extra bits of clobber around. Thus it makes sense for someone to pull everything in a portable computer together into a sexy looking package. As with cars, all the components are the same as they are for all the other portable makers (not completely true but it will do as a generalisation). Aesthetics can make all the difference.

Portability also says aesthetics because portability means that you are more likely to be showing the thing off to second parties, to corporate rivals, to admiring audiences. Portable gizmos are more likely to be aesthetic status goods. See also: portable phones. Very similar tendencies there to digital cameras, only more so. Think of all those fancy new cases you can buy for them. And note how when portable phones do a leap forward technologically, aesthetics steps back a little. (That's happening now, isn't it? – and those fancy covers are a little less common now. They'll be back.)

But that big computer box that stays under my desk? The only aesthetic I want there is how such things look when they work well. The functional look is all I want there. The aesthetic "honesty" of the engineering brick or the out-of-town warehouse circa 1960. My computer is a boring metal box which is there to do a job, not to look cute. And it looks like a boring metal box, which is just fine by me. We need to be "smart and pretty" now, says Postrel. All I want from my big box computer is smart, thank you.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:11 PM
January 06, 2004
How digital radio and digital TV has temporarily turned my clock back

My life just now is going through an odd phase. It will not last because it is absurd, but while it lasts it is strange, and I at least will enjoy reading about it in, I don't know, five years time, when the problem I am now mired in has been solved, and I've forgotten about it. (Never forget that my number one reader here is me. That explains a lot.)

But back to this odd phase. I'm talking about the fact that before I went digital, I could record TV programmes, and radio programmes, semi-satisfactorily, but now I can't. Now I'm sure that there are simple procedures for solving these problems, but the trouble is that just for now it they are too complicated. I'm sure that if I could get a routine going, I could record radio programmes on my hard disc and then play them back through the speakers attached to my computer. I'm pretty sure that I can't record digital TV now, until I get a "TiVo", or whatever those things are called. Recording digital TV on videotape is worse than analogue TV on videotape, because the sound is utter crap.

Please spare me the helpful advice about all this. There are more important things going on in my life right now than being able to record every digital signal that enters my kitchen. When everyone else is kitted out with the relevant stuff I'll get it too, and that will be that.

But meanwhile, my life has reverted to the pre-video-recorder age. My weekly clock is now governed by the Radio Times and its contents. I find myself inventing non-existent alternative dinner engagements, so that I can watch certain movies or listen to certain classical concerts, or watch a cherished re-run of Ab Fab.

Take last night. Basically, the job in hand was to write this about how Michael Jennings wants a job. I had promised it for Monday, and did actually finish it in the early hours of today. But alas, BBC TV 4, on channel 10, was simultaneously broadcasting, live from the new-olde Globe Theatre, London, the Mark Rylance Richard II. Which was fantastic.

Basically, I have nothing much more to say about this production than that. It was fantastic. It was outstanding. Rylance's characterisation of Richard was the most convincing I've ever seen. Bolingbroke was very fine. The John of Gaunt speech was very fine. Blah blah blah. Fine fine fine. Anyway, I had to watch it. It was last night or never (although actually of course they'll rerun it several more times and it will be available soon on DVD).

And in among it, I did the piece about Michael wanting a job. So, with digital TV, I write a bad article and Michael has to settle for a dead-end job. No digital TV, the article is brilliant, Michael becomes a billionaire uber-geek and lavish sponsor of Brian's Culture Blog which proceeds to take over the world. Such is history. Anyway, as I say, it's an odd time in my life.

And then this morning I had to get up at the crack of … well never mind, to listen to a promising Dvorak chamber music recording on Radio 3. Radio 3 is now a near continuous delight. Thank god it isn't all as good as some of it is, or I'd never do anything except listen to it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:36 PM
December 22, 2003
Playing games with the Alien

This is a photograph I took earlier today, of Perry de Havilland's new computer.


Two points:

First, it looks very cool, and is (not coincidentally) called "the Alien". And not just by Perry, by the makers of the thing. Look at what it says on the mouse mat.

Second, it is mega mega powerful, and cost a whole lot more than most of us would dream of spending on a computer, no matter how easily we could afford such a beast. I asked Perry why he had paid so much. Answer: he's a computer games freak. And computer games work a whole lot better on mega mega powerful computers. Computer games feature lots of special effects which are a lot more special on a machine like the Alien than on the kind of chugger I happily operate on. What is more, Perry added, it is computer games which are now driving computer hardware along. The gamesters are the ones now buying the latest, biggest and bestest personal computers, and the rest of us are quite content to pay a few hundred quid for their cast-offs. Interesting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:08 PM
December 17, 2003
TV sets as ceramic tiles – it's getting nearer

And the technology of visual display continues to race ahead. This from today's NYT:

AN FRANCISCO, Dec. 16 – The Intel Corporation is planning to do to digital television what it has already done to computing.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which opens on Jan. 8, Intel is expected to disclose the development of a class of advanced semiconductors that technologists and analysts say will improve the quality of large-screen digital televisions and substantially lower their price, according to industry executives close to the company.

Intel's ability to integrate display, television receiver and computer electronics on a single piece of silicon is likely to open new markets for a class of products - including plasma, projection and L.C.D. TV's - that now sell for $3,000 to $10,000.

Intel, as well as other large chip manufacturers, should be able to expand the benefits of Moore's Law, named for Gordon Moore, a founder of Intel, which accurately predicted decades ago that computer chips would continue to double in capacity roughly every 18 months, while their price would continue to fall.

"I think this brings Moore's Law to digital television," said Richard Doherty, a consumer electronics industry analyst who is president of Envisioneering, a consulting firm based on Long Island. He predicted that the low-cost display technology, which can be incorporated into the traditional rear-projection television sets, could lead to lightweight 50-inch screens only 7 inches thick for about $1,000, perhaps as early as the 2004 holiday season.


I have long ruminated here to the effect that a whole new era of display will open up when people have more than one TV set, and that's a function of how small they can be made. Think of how the world will change when we can all have our walls covered in TV sets which no more unwieldy than framed pictures are now. You can only listen effectively to one machine, maybe two or three if you count my habit of combining classical music and TV sport (often both together) with other things. But you can have an entire wall full of simultaneous pictures. Any decade now our living rooms will sport those wonderful arrays of TV sets that you only now see in the TV shops, and with coordinated graphics controlled from one keyboard. That is to say, you'll be able to make the screens all combine together to show the same huge picture, or have separate pictures on each TV, or a combination of the two, to taste.

For this reason, much effort will in future go into making not just thin screens, but screens with thin frames, and ideally no frames at all. TVs will be like ceramic tiles, only with changeable graphics. A bit like this, come to think of it.

Movies to nod to: That one with Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer … The Witches of Eastwick? – where at the end the baby devil spawn was watching a whole wall full of TVs, all occupied by Devil Jack Nicholson; and: the original Rollerball, which I recall having walls of imagery; as did Total Recall, I seem to recall. And there must be many more.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:01 AM
December 02, 2003
What the web looks like

What do you think this is?


Gabriel Syme ("Colourful web") of Samizdata links to it, and explains:

A project to create a comprehensive graphical representation of the internet in just one day and using only a single computer has already produced some eye-catching images. The Opte Project uses a networking program called "traceroute". This records the network addresses that a data packet hops between as it travels towards a particular network host. The project is free and represents a lot of donated time.

Well I didn't fully get all that, but it sure looks pretty.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:51 AM
November 26, 2003
SpaceShipOne flies over a wind farm

SpaceShipOne is the gizmo that Dale Amon reports about on Samizdata, whenever it makes an advance, and I love it.

This picture is a thing of great beauty, I think:


What's fun about this is that it combines in one image two iconic technologies of our time, but two technologies which are worshipped by utterly different people. So where else but here would a picture that combines wind farming and space travelling get linked to? Well, wherever business people are trying to talk past entrenched political positions to get a simple "wow" response, from humans, I guess.

At first glance, the wind machines look small, the SpaceShipOne is only feet off the ground. But the Scaled Composites caption speaks of SpaceShipOne being "in the skies" over the Mojave, so I'm guessing looks are rather deceiving. How tall are those wind things?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:21 AM
November 13, 2003

I think I'm going to want one of these:

SOONER or later, the technologies of the various areas of our lives merge, resulting in a savings of cost, cables and clutter. For the nightstand, you can buy a clock-radio-telephone. In the car, you've got one radio-CD-player-heating-control unit. In your pocket, a Swiss Army knife.

But the area around the TV is still a mess. By the time you've installed your cable box, VCR, TiVo and DVD player-recorder, you've built a techno-tower crisscrossed by cables and overrun by remotes. If ever an area cried out for consolidation, the TV room is it.

The industry has taken a few tentative steps in that direction: combo VCR-DVD players fill the shelves at Costco and Circuit City, and Toshiba recently unveiled a $400 TiVo with built-in DVD player. But those early attempts should bow down before the sweet perfection of a new pair of hybrids: Pioneer's new DVR-810H and Elite DVR-57H.

Each of these remarkable machines is a TiVo recorder, DVD player and DVD recorder in a single box, with one remote that also controls your TV.

The TiVo part means that you can freeze, rewind or instantly replay whatever you're watching; record a show (or, rather, a lot of shows) on its built-in hard drive for instant playback at any time; and skip over ads. Above all, a digital video recorder, or DVR, like TiVo permanently disconnects the broadcast time from the – viewing time. By the time TiVo zealots – which is pretty much everyone who has ever bought one - blip over the ads, credits, recaps and promos, they can watch a one-hour show in about 35 minutes. No wonder they never, ever watch whatever junk happens to be on at the moment.

I also think I know how I'm going to do this. I'm not going to be a pioneer purchaser. I'm going to wait until my friends are paying £500 for their Giant Gizmo DVDivo Whatsits, and I'll hem and I'll haw and then eighteen months later I'll buy one for £150. At which point, I rather think, that will be it. Better technologies than this will become available for couch potatoing, but as with CDs and their subsequent rivals, I'll then be happy with what I have.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:00 PM
November 10, 2003
The time of the Multiple Remotes

Now that we live in the historic epoch – which got under way early in the nineteenth century with photography – of Recording, we can look back at the archives of earlier decades and chuckle at those transitional technologies which had only just been devised, but not perfected. Each decade has its characteristic signature gadgets, starting with those cameras, on tripods and with the photographer hiding under a blanket. Model T Fords. Telephones in two separate bits. Propeller driven aeroplanes. Black and white televisions. Vacuum cleaners the shape of giant Swiss Rolls. Ancient tape recorders with giant wheels of tape that you had to cut with scissors. Gramophone records. Portable telephones the size of shoe boxes. Giant genuinely floppy floppy discs. VHS videos and TV screens that stick out at the back are beginning their descent into the same memory banks.

Time was when it was very hard to notice these things in the historic record. We can see the battles and the kings and the queens, the opening up of continents and the industrial revolutions. Spotting the subtle changes in things like eighteenth century tea kettles and coal scuttles and fifteenth century butter churns and pig sties is harder. But now these kinds of details have also become easy for us all to remember, when we see them in the photographs and the newsreels and the ancient TV shows.

So here now is an image that will, I suggest, do a lot to define the very particular moment of domestic history that we are now living through:


A decade ago, none of us had so many of these damned things. In ten years time, the mess will probably have been sorted out. But now – just now – this is a small but definite thing which pinpoints our little moment in history. We now live in The Time of The Multiple Remotes.

Let me itemise these particular remotes for you, for they are mine, and I have just photographed them for you. From left to right as we look: (1) The television, (2) The video, (3) The tuner/amplifier component of my medium fi system (4) The compact disk player, ditto, (5) The digital box attachment to the television, (6) The DVD player, (7) The digital radio that has replaced the (analogue) tuner bit of the tuner/amp. I dare say there'll be more in the years to come.

But I don't really have to spell it all out for you, do I? You probably have just such a collection yourself. I live alone, and my collection adds up to a single control panel, albeit a rather complicated and unwieldy one. All my Remotes occupy the same shelf on my desk.

But pity the families. There, the Remotes move hither and thither like a litter of unruly puppies.

The relationship of the father of the modern family to his various Remotes is a metaphor for his entire life. When a modern man has a family, his life is no longer his own, and because of the multiplicity of all those Remotes, the very "control" which they are supposed to supply slips from his hands. When there was only one Remote, he was its Lord and Master, but not any more.

Luckily he doesn't have time to pay careful attention to all the electronic message receivers and displays these magic wands supposedly command for him, but which actually behave towards him more like a barrier. He has more important things to attend to.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:19 PM
November 04, 2003
A very special effect

Something tells me that it won't be long before this kind of thing and this kind of thing get combined.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:28 PM
November 03, 2003
Concorde again

David Farrer has this picture of Concorde up at Freedom and Whisky, taken at Edinburch airport. I'm guessing he took it himself but he doesn't say.


I believe I may have improved its presentation. He has it up as a .bmp, and on my screen it has bumpy things happening at the join between the fuselage and the sky. Also it takes a long time to load, because he had it as a rather big file. On my screen - and maybe yours? - this now looks better. If you want a/the bigger version of this picture, do what I did and copy it from David.

The earlier Concorde picture here showed the shape from below. This is the best I've seen lately of its beak.

Antoine Clarke gave an excellent talk at my place last Friday evening about Concorde, and about the contrasting attitudes of Britain and France to its demise. Basically, British Airways made a success of running it, if you exclude the small matter of how much it cost to build the damn thing! So we mourned and celebrated. Air France couldn't even do that, and were glad to see it go. And France didn't mourn or celebrate, other than giving a media nod to all the mourning and celebrating going on in Britain.

Which is odd, because usually the French State is quite good at these money-no-object flag-waving ikon things, while here in Britain we tend to screw them up.

Although, British Airways also owns London's Wheel (of the "London Eye" as they insist on calling it) and that looks great and works well too.

It's obvious really. Give The Dome to British Airways too. They obviously have the magic touch with these things. After all, for many decades they themselves were one of "these things". Turning national monuments into profitable national monuments is what they do, because when they were privatised they started by doing this to themselves.

This will have to mentioned also at Transport Blog.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:32 PM
October 24, 2003
Farewell to Concorde

Today Concorde flies for the last time, in England, I think. I really can't tell exactly what's happening today, which is being called a "celebration". Will the French be flying theirs some more? Will there be further celebrations? Will Richard Branson buy one and use it for holiday outings and to annoy British Airways, which he likes to do? Don't know, don't care. All that matters to me is that the serious flying career is ending, some time around now, of one of the most beautiful objects ever to take to the skies. I will almost certainly neither hear it or see it ever again.

Really good photos of the big bird are surprisingly hard to come by on the internet, although there are dull ones in abundance, mostly of one of them on the ground, or taking off which is impressive I do agree.

I like this photo because it shows Concorde as I saw it, from below, and dwarfed by the sky which it still dominates aesthetically. It captures the shape of the whole thing, whereas many of the pictures seem to focus in on close-up detail, like that extraordinary dipping beak, or the strangely thick neck, or those downward sloping wings as seen from head on.


The ideal Concorde photo, for me, would have a vast and mundane London roofscape, with Concorde itself only a tiny fragment of faraway beauty in the sky. I might have taken such a photo myself, but I never got around to it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:39 PM
October 16, 2003
Digital music on the move

More on the theme of good enough sound being good enough, if there are other important benefits along with it, in this case ultra-portability:

LIKE the herds of ever-smaller personal cassette players that roamed the earth in the 1980's, droves of tiny devices that play music in digital form are peeking out from pockets, purses, briefcases and backpacks everywhere you turn these days.

Although some will argue that their audio fidelity is not as high, digital music players do have one distinct advantage over the portable cassette, disc and minidisc players competing for the public's ear: you can leave the tapes, CD's or minidiscs at home and still listen to lots of different albums or mixes. With a digital player, you can carry anywhere from two hours to four weeks of continuous music with you, ready to pour through your headphones.

Even since I read an Instapundit piece from way back when saying that the science and technology coverage in the New York Times is outstandingly good, I've been going there almost every day to check out what miracles and wonders they've got this time. (This was a recent find there.) These little music boxes aren't especially miraculous or wondrous. Most of us probably know by now that they exist. But how do they work? Which one to get? The next paragraph ends thus:

Here is an outline of what you need to know and acquire to get your music moving.

I don't care for portable music myself. But if it's your bag, and you want that bag to be extremely light …

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:27 PM
October 15, 2003
On bad old art, art (by William Blake) which works better as artwork, and inner light

Alan Little went to an art exhibition today. Well, actually it was on the twelfth. He emailed me about this, and if only to encourage others to email me about matters cultural that they've written about, I duly link. Apologies for the delay.

I found this paragraph to be the one that really intrigued:

Also striking was how much better and more interesting the "modern art" (for want of a better term for the art of the first half of the last century – there was very little on display that was less than about forty years old) was than the older stuff. People who dismiss modern art can’t, I conclude, have spent much time looking at eighteenth and early nineteenth century European art, most of which is hideous. I doubt if even Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin has ever produced anything as ugly and ridiculous as a sparkly porcelain bundle of asparagus.

I had a similar albeit not identical reaction when I went round the non-modern English stuff in the Tate, being struck by how bad I thought the worst of it was, how feeble, how small, and how much more exciting and shiny and "sparkly" (to echo Alan's phrase) the very same things looked in some of the book and magazine reproductions of them I'd seen. In particular, many of the William Blake pictures looked like they'd been dashed off on the backs of envelopes, which for all I know they may well have been. And he's supposed to be really good.

It's a change of subject, away from the badness of Ancient Art, because actually I don't think that Blake was an "artist" at all, in the orthodox sense that his pictures are at their best when you view the original artwork itself. Those originals are just that, artwork. They are instructions to a printer, and once the printer has got to work, they can actually look better than those originals. I'm not saying that they actually were instructions to a printer when he did them. I do not know, and would welcome education by comment, as often happens to me here. But I do say that this is how I think they work best. For me.

William Blake's pictures also work very well on a half-decent computer screen, I think. Maybe that's because a computer screen supplies an internal light source, which many of Blake's pictures cry out for, but which in the original they just do not have. Also, the originals are absurdly small, compared to, say, the big shiny posters that are made from them.

Talking of inner light sources takes me back to the Italian Renaissance, where, although they didn't literally have electric lights behind their paintings, they were masters at making it look as if they did.

I did a posting a while ago on Samizdata about a really interesting invention, which was basically a computer screen which did not have a light source behind it or otherwise built into it, and which only reflected light off its surface. It behaves exactly like a regular printed photograph or a painting, in other words. That'll be an interesting development, assuming it develops.

In general, when I go around a really big and famous art gallery, with lots of pictures from all the different art eras, I'm struck by how fabulous the very first oil paintings often were, compared to a lot of the later ones. Those first great renaissance set piece religious paintings were like Hollywood epics, and it can't be an accident that when movies first arrived at their technical peak, a lot of movies looked like renaissance paintings, and I don't just mean the Biblical epics. It's as if those first few generations of painters just exulted at what was suddenly possible, and maybe also suddenly allowed, the way only movie makers do now. And it occurs to me that the Bright Shining Dawn of movie making has maybe now, on the whole, drawn to a close. Or maybe it's me, and I'm getting old and am not myself dazzled by the sheer look of movies any more. And my impression of the Renaissance upstaging the later stuff may merely reflect either that this particular art gallery had better Renaissance stuff than later stuff, or that there was just as much good stuff done later, but a lot more bad stuff. Which I would suppose is the truth.

As for the general run of bad Ancient Art, I agree with Alan that there's tons and tons of rubbish out there, not involving the twentieth century at all.

A bit of a ramble, I fear, and no doubt hideously misinformed. Oh well. I'll learn.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:43 PM
The return of BBC4

Never have I more enjoyed a close-up picture of an elephant's bottom ejecting elephant crap. I'm referring to the joyous moment when, having switched on my TV last night just after 7pm, I switched over to BBC4, where an elephantine David Attenborough show was just getting going. And BBC4 worked. BBC 4 had previously come, and then gone, and for months now, it's been gone. But Michael Jennings dropped by yesterday.


Although he was unable to do anything to the TV aerial on account of the door (to the communal roof to which the TV aerial is attached) being locked, Michael did do some downloading magic which, it is now clear, did the trick. For the few hours before that happy, crappy moment, I had to make do with Michael's claim that it "should" work, and we've all heard "should" from techies haven't we? – to be followed quickly by doesn't. Only this time it was did. Long may it last. BBC 4 is the most cultural of the free digital channels, so this is a most happy development.

Michael also contrived for my TV to spout forth all the digital radio programmes. So there we go. I wait years for a digital radio, and then suddenly two arrive.

To be less frivolous, this story illustrates the value of (a) Other People, and (b) Cities, which contain such a great choice of Other People to choose from and to cultivate, so that when you want your TV set to work better, you can pick an Other Person to do it for you.

You can't do things like this nearly so easily in the countryside.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:31 PM
October 06, 2003
Jennings on parental connectedness

Continuing the technology theme, I liked these reflections a lot, from Michael Jennings, on the difference that communications technology makes to the texture of everyday life.

Michael's parents have email, and now read his blog to stay in touch. My surviving parent does not have email, and never reads this, or this, or for that matter this. Huge difference, to echo and adapt Julia Roberts when shopping in Pretty Woman. Huge.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:53 PM
September 29, 2003
Txt from The Goddaughter

So, The Goddaughter sent me an email about a week or two ago:

i just decided to look on your culture blog to see woh you were gettin on. Do u pay to make your wbsite?

I told her the bad news about what it costs to have a website, and her next email suggested that she write stuff for my blogs, presumably because that's cheaper for her, and maybe also less of a bother:

want me to tell you anyfink 2 put on u r web? if u do, justr tell me wat ya wanna know

Fair enough. So my reply included the following:

Here are some questions that you could answer, if you feel like it:

What are your favourite books, and why?

What is your favourite music, and why? Do you like classical at all, or do you really like only pop? How's that awful cello playing coming along? And the singing?

What schools have you been too? Which were the best and which were the worst? Who was your best teacher, and what made that teacher so good?

I'm interested by the way you write emails. No capital letters. "2" instead of "to". "u r" for "your", "u" instead of "you", wanna instead of want to. I think I know why this is fun. It's creative, it saves screen space on small screens, and it annoys stupid adults. Is that it? Or are there other reasons for it?

As you can see, I was looking for stuff for my education blog, as well as for here, but I'll give the whole answer here, because what interests me most about what The Goddaughter had put is beyond mere education. It is, of course, the way in which she puts it. Is the word for it "Txt"? I'll call it that here from now on.

Mi fav books R Nancy Drew books cos i like detectiv books. She's 18 and shes the daughter of a lawyer called Carson Drew. She has a b/f called Ned (Nickers)on

I dont necesarly like POP, its just mor modern music dat i like. I like da new singer Avril lavigne. Shee's OK. I like classical as well, but it depends wat it is.Im gettin a bit betta on da cello. I had a lesson 2day wiv my "teacher". I also had a singin lesson 2day. I like singin but id like 2 do mor.

At skewl we R startin da choir. I hope dey R gonna chose me as a solo. Its an english song.

I've bin 2 loads of skewls and the best 1 was Wimbledon House skewl cos i was best of da clas. I was alwayz da best of da class in england!!!!

My fav teach was Mrs. Whales cos she was loads like me. I dont know y, but i just like her.

And this was the answer I was most eager to hear about. What's wiv all the Txting? Y, oh Goddaughter, do u, best of da clas at Wimbledon House skewl, rite like dis?

I rite like dis cos its easier. U make a mistake and u hav an excuse! But this is also easier cos instead of havin 2 think about da word be4 ritin it u just rite it as it is pronounzd!

The Goddaughter is no under-educated underclasser. She was, just as she said, best of the class at Wimbledon House School. Yet here she is riting like dis. Her answer, about why she likes doing this Txt stuff is, I'm sure, all true, and I thank her for it. Very interesting, and most informative. Alice Bachini, who visited me this afternoon and who read all this, commented that when kids write like this, they always seem to be happier, and I bet they are, for all the reasons The Goddaugher itemises, plus they are having creative fun. I bet they have permanent grin on their faces, because of the last little bit of phonetic inventiveness they did. They are playing, rather than working. Doing what they want, rather than following someone else's rules. When you play, there is no wrong answer. Txt turns writing from science into art.

But having lived for almost half a century longer than The Goddaughter, I can assure her that hers is not the first generation of children who would have liked to rite somewhat like dis. The big story here is that modern electronic communication has finally created a world in which The Goddaughter and her millions of contemporaries are writing Txt rather than Standard English because they can. Who can stop them?

Email, and text messaging, and – I'm sure – lots and lots of blogs, have made a world in which Grammarians no longer rule the language. So what if Most People disapprove? Most People aren't reading your Txt messages. In the case of the Goddaughter emailing The Godfather, Most People aren't The Godfather, and if The Godfather is willing to read decypher this stuff (I am), then where's the problem?

This style of writing used to be confined to isolated school subcultures. A billion notes handed around at the back of the class have no doubt been written in a million local variants ofTxt, although even school subcultures were surely heavily infected with Standard English. But Modern Electronics has joined all these subcultures together, and turned them into a vast linguistic arena which is no longer divided and soon if not already conquered by Standard English, but rather one that is an imperial linguistic force in its own right.

Old Guys like me write producer prose about what we want to write. In my case that means doing it in educated English, with the odd spelling error or grammatical carelessness but with no major language games. True, I like the occasional sentence without a verb, and I quite often resort to Not Strictly Correct capital letters, but mostly, I play no games with the language code itself. My games are all in what I write about. But the same freedom I have to put what I want here, in my educated prose, enables The Goddaughter to tell her story her way, in her particular version of Txt. And if Txt doesn't include much in the way of Standard English spelling or punctuation, then that's just 2 bad 4 Standard English.

I can already hear the grumbles when the Fogey tendency over at my education blog comes here and reads the thoughts of The Goddaughter, if they do come here and can stomach the stuff. "Tell your Goddaughter she'll have to spell correctly if she wants to get a Decent Job." Well, no worries. The Goddaughter is tri-lingual in English, French and Roumanian. And she is, to my certain knowledge, bilingual also in Standard English and Txt-ing, or whatever we call it. She'll get a Decent Job.

But more to the point, such Fogeys are missing the point here. The Txt sub-culture is rapidly becoming simply a culture. Who says that people won't ever be able to get jobs if all they can write is Txt? What happens when the Txt-ers are the ones doing the hiring? My guess this process is already well under way, in computer games emporia, pop group management companies, and the like. For many jobs, I should guess that an inability or unwillingness to converse in Txt rules you out of consideration.

The printing press standardised spelling and grammar. (Remember all those jokes about there being fifteen different ways to spell Shakespeare.) It looks to me as if Electronics could be un-standardising it. That's a huge event in the history of language.

Or maybe, the spellcheckers will still function, but with greatly expanded vocabularies L8 will be included by the software writers just after Late. Y, u, 2 and 4 – for why, you, too and for – are already there of course. But, I suspect that a sprinkling of red and green underlinings will be considered de rigeur for your real Txt-er, in other words that for all practical purposes the spellcheckers and grammar hecklers will be switched off.

And yes, you're right if you seem to remember me having written about this Txt thing before. It was in connection with this Samizdata piece.

But this is the first time I've had a real Txter feeding Txt into the postings herself, and what's more she's one I know well. That, for me anyway, gives the whole issue an extra punch.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:58 AM
August 25, 2003
Did they have ice cream in Victorian times?

This is the kind of thing you need to know. After all, what if someone came up to you in the street and asked you: "Do you know if they had ice cream in Victorian times?" – and you had to admit that you didn't?

You think that's far fetched? Exactly this experience happened to Michael Jennings only yesterday.

Normally I take pride in being able to answer questions like this, but in this instance I really couldn't.

The horror, the horror.

Afterwards, of course, Michael did some research, and it turns out they did. Too late, Michael, too late.

This posting too silly and inconsequential to put on Samizdata. But since (a) this is my ego blog, and (b) culture here means whatever I say it means which means that it can include Victorian ice cream and strange events in the twenty first century street if I say so and I do say so, here it is here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:10 PM
August 20, 2003

A great way to edge your profile in the blogosphere in the upwards direction is to do one of those links to a Samizdata posting that turns the bit where it says "TrackBack [0]" to "TrackBack [1]". Noticing such a circumstance (and making it go now to "TrackBack [2]") at the top of Dale Amon's posting about SpaceShipOne (which I have a soft spot for simply because it photographs so prettily), I backtracked my way to a blog called The Speculist, which is about the onward march into the wild blue future yonder of technology. Whenever Samizdata gets too gloomy about the European Union, income tax, UK gun control, etc., this will be one of the places I go for optimistic refreshment about life's possibilities.

My favourite posting there at present, edging the one about DNA computing into second place, is this one about Chinese human-rabbit hybrids.

Hollywood must be told about this. The pitch: The Fly, only instead of a fly it's a bunny. The Bunny! Jeff Goldblum with fur and whiskers (which he has already practised doing in the outstanding Earth Girls Are Easy), winning an Olympic sprinting medal and then disappearing into a hole in the ground. Maybe not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:12 PM
August 18, 2003
The economics of CDs and DVDs

This Guardian has a story today about how the Internet, instead of wrecking the music industry, is reviving it, by forcing it to lower its CD prices.

But the economics of the Guardian piece is all over the place. Success is defined as total money spent, which, now that people are spending the same amounts of money on more and cheaper products, is holding up. Profits are falling, says the story, but that doesn't matter.

Oh yes it does. The record companies may be shifting their existing product at fire-sale prices, but these numbers won't encourage them to record new stuff.

For the time being, they can still make some money with their biggest selling pop artists. But the future of the music industry remains uncertain.

I've been noting the fall in classical CD prices for some time. I can't help noticing that sellers of CDs are now aware that one of my alternatives is to get hold of a copy of the CD in question by borrowing and copying it. The morals of this may be as wobbly as the Guardian's economics, but wobbly morals, unlike the grim certainties of economics, don't stop things happening. The basic, low-as-it-gets price for a quite decent but long available classical CD is just £. This compares very favourably with the bother of copying. That's what I paid, for example, for a very decent recording by Maria-Joao (sprinkle Spanish squiggles to taste) Pires, of Mozart's piano concertos 13, 14 and 23. Before ubiquitous CD burners, this would have set me back £3. at least.

It's the same with books. The price of books very exactly reflects the bother of photocopying from a legitimate copy, both in terms of how easy it is to get hold of a copy, and how easy it is to actually photocopy it. Not very, which is why remaindered books can still fetch several quid, despite their low tech nature – in fact because of it.

What's holding CD prices up, still, is that there are still plenty of listeners out there who can't be doing with this internet malarkey and still want to have an entirely separate system for music to the system they have for internet surfing or emailing or doing their homework. I'm one of these neanderthals. Soon we will all be dead. As we die, the Internet will gradually mutate into one vast, free, jukebox. For many it's that already. But not me. I like CDs. I like the idea of owning music, in the form of an object for each clutch of pieces. I feel about CDs what an earlier generation felt about LPs and what an even earlier one than that felt about 78s.

But I'm noticing that with movies my psychology is different. The knowledge that truly high definition movies for the home are yet to arrive, and the fact that a favourite movie does not immediately demand to be watched four more times (while a treasurable new CD demands exactly that), all make me less bothered about owning movies on DVD. If their purchase price resembles the cost of hiring, I'll buy. Over about twelve quid, forget it.

It doesn't help that DVDs come in ludicrously space-consuming boxes. At some point, I might seriously consider switching all the movies I do own on DVD into CD-type jewel cases. I mean, what nincompoop thought, after the electronics industry had sweated blood to get the info boiled down into a beer mat, that the way to package DVDs was to make them take up as much space as possible. I guess, what with VHS tapes, they were just addicted to big fat rectangles.

Plus, I suppose when they introduced DVDs they reckoned they'd charge forty quid for each one and that the average punter would own about twenty of them in his entire life.

But we punters are smarter than that. We know that the marginal cost of copying a movie is zero, near enough, no matter how many gazillions they may spend making the damn movies in the first place. We always knew, having watched the price of CDs drift downwards over the last two decades, that DVDs would soon move downwards too, and if they are still asking twenty quid for a favourite movie, to hell with them. We only buy a quarter as many of the damn thing. Ergo, DVD movie prices have plunged a lot more quickly than CD prices.

Soon there will be DVDs in the charity shops, just as there have long been quite decent CDs there.

The longer term future of both music making and movie making will become much more dispersed, and diverse. More will be done by people who just want to make music or make movies. Money will still be just as important, but in a different way. The typical customer of the new age will not be a passive listener or watcher, but an active creator.

A bit like blogging. We don't make money with our blogging. We are the customers – for bandwidth, for blogging software, for cameras and flash cards so we can decorate our blogs, for designers who can tart up the look of our blogs, for nicer screens, for nicer speakers to play each others' tunes.

The new age, in other words, will not be an age in which canned music and canned movies make the money. What will make the money will be the cans and the canning equipment. The instruments.

That's enough. Probably already too much. Sorry if it was all too boring and obvious.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:12 PM
August 12, 2003
Beautiful SpaceShipOne

This picture (one of these) is here because it is beautiful, both the photography and the thing photographed.


For techical elucidation, go here:

Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne had a successful drop test yesterday. This demonstrated the ability to take off with the vehicles mated (which had already been demonstrated in previous captive-carry flights), to smoothly separate the mated vehicles, and for both vehicles to fly safely back to Mojave. A couple more tests, and they'll be ready to integrate propulsion into the vehicle, and go for altitude.

Beats anything in Tate Modern.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:05 AM
August 08, 2003
To hell with flash mobs

I am now engaged in an argument with Michael Jennings about this.

He says they're an example of something creative. I say it's bollocks and I say to hell with it.

Picture this: You're approaching the corner of Yonge and Dundas and suddenly, from out of nowhere, 100 men and women flood the pedestrian crosswalks, spinning and twirling as they cross and re-cross the street.

A few minutes later they've melted away, vanished without a trace.

Or you're at Chapters, absorbed in a leisurely examination of the latest bestseller when, without warning, scores of people come to a stop around you and start peppering the sales help with questions about non-existent books.

Within minutes they're gone and, but for the frazzled clerk, you'd be tempted to think you imagined it all.

Welcome to the flash mob, the urban phenomenon that's caught the fancy of cellphone users worldwide.

With a bit of planning and a few up-to-the-minute friends with text messaging, you, too, can create your very own flash mob.

"Everybody loves a mindless mob," said Merilyn Synder, who has participated in Manhattan's Mob Project, an e-mail driven experiment in organizing groups of people who suddenly materialize in public places to do one or another weird thing, and then disappear as suddenly as they appeared.

"Everybody loves a mindless mob"!!! Speak for yourself you brainless moron bitch from hell.

What Michael is trying to say in his clumsy way is that these cretins are using a method of self organisation which will be increasingly common in the years to come, now that ultra-powerful personal communication plummets towards costing nothing, and rockets towards being able to say everything to everyone, everywhere, instantly. He has a point. But these flash mob idiots are actually proud of the fact that their flash mobs are to do nothing but spread bewilderment and confusion, and otherwise have no purpose whatsoever. Something tells me that they will be targetting innocent shopworkers in capitalist enterprises rather than making life difficult for the public sector, which is where they will all eventually be employed, although I personally hope that they do as little actual work as they can contrive, because all that they will do will be thoroughly bad. That's the kind if idiots they all are.

Michael's problem is that anything involving the word "spontaneous" sounds cool to him. Other things being equal. Which they aren't, is my point about these people.

Here's another idea for the use of similar techniques, but this time with a purpose. Every time a "flash mob" assembles, another purposive group self-assembles and pelts the original mobsters with giant cans of shaving foam, plasticated cake decoration, and if that doesn't do the trick, napalm.

Or maybe, infiltrate the flash mob and contrive to lead them over a cliff, the good guys stepping aside at the last moment while the Gadarene mob hurls itself to its well deserved destruction.

Have a nice weekend.

By the way, Michael does have his uses. I just lost this whole damn post, and he rescued it all with some "undo" magic which on my own I couldn't have imagined.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:47 PM
July 28, 2003
On the difference it makes to be watching things alone

James Lileks has a lovely description today in his Bleat, about watching the movie Devil in a Blue Dress, which is particular good about the particular joy of watching the thing on a computer, and being able to freeze frame, and internet search for the details of a movie that was shown being shown, in the original movie. Lileks describes all that better, so read him.

What all this also points up, it now occurs to me, is that watching a movie on your own is also a different experience again. If you are watching on your own, you can decide two minutes in that you don't want to watch it after all. You can freeze frame to take incoming phone calls, you can freeze frame if the ball game playing silently on your TV (the DVD being on your computer screen) suddenly springs to life with a big home run, or in my case a wicket or a burst of dramatic slogging. You can just freeze it, and make yourself a cup of coffee.

Now that DVD players and TVs are so very cheap, more and more people are presumably watching movies on their own.

Which leads on to another point, which is that if you watch a movie on your own you don’t have to justify your choice to anyone. You can watch porn, or old Scharzeneggers. I can watch soppy High School Romances or Fred-and-Gingers or tapes of recent England rugby triumphs – while also doing something like blogging – and if other people think that's daft or tasteless or ridiculous, fine, they can watch something else and simultaneously do something else. Unlike me, Lileks is a family man, but he also likes his time alone to watch his preferred stuff.

Personally I value this aspect of home viewing far more than I value a million dollars worth of high techery to do the sound and fury of Terminator 5 at the cinema, or for that matter the equivalent kit for five hundred quid for all the family to watch at home, when that also arrives, which it may already have done for all I know or care. My "home cinema" is plenty big enough for short-sighted little me, given than it is only twenty inches away from my eyes.

Narrowcasting, I think they call this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:41 PM
July 16, 2003
Mobile phone/TV

I got this picture of a mobile phone which also shows TV from this collection of photos. Am I breaking any rules showing it here?


Speculation. The last fifty years or so (together with about the next ten) will go down in history as the Indoors Years, when you had to choose between doing things in the Real World and watching TV, and when most people chose TV, leaving the streets free to be terrorised by those wretched untermenchen who didn't have homes and who didn't watch TV all evening, thus causing crime temporailty to rocket and civilisation temporarily to collapse.

Predicted 21st century sport. Driving and watching TV at the same time. A complicated obstacle course to drive through without knocking into things - then questions about what was on TV.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:32 PM
July 07, 2003
Useful Total Surveillance link

In connection with the Total Surveillance Society thing, Adrian Ramsey commented on the White Rose version of this piece here with a link to this. It's the first four chapters of a book called The Transparent Society. Subtitle: "Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?" Quite so.

I've only skim-read chapter one, and mostly what it does is ram home the message that this stuff is here to stay. My friend Patrick Crozier (he repeated this at the blogger bash we both attended on Saturday night) often says that governments and computers don't ever work properly together, but I think that this is strictly temporary. When the government can buy stuff at Dixons along with the rest of us, the stuff works okay. Soon, surveillance kit will be in Dixons.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:57 PM
June 24, 2003
Reflections on "Big Brother": the total surveillance society and the prescience of popular culture

In a characteristic Samizdata posting, Perry de Havilland regrets the modern use of the phrase "Big Brother" to describe reality TV shows, and harks back to Orwell's original coinage, with grim pictures of CCTV surveillance cameras outside primary schools, and of propaganda for CCTV cameras in the form of big posters in the London Underground.

All this anti-surveillance thinking over at Samizdata is connected to the recent launch of this new blog, White Rose which will be concerned with civil liberties and "intrusive state" issues. I've already done a couple of posts there, the most substantial of which concerned organ donarship, and I intend to contribute many more similar efforts. The boss of White Rose is one of my closest friends.

However, I have long been nursing heretical thoughts about this total surveillance stuff, which it makes sense to put on a "culture" blog rather than on a politics blog. Because what I think is at stake here is a sea change not just in state surveillance, but in the culture generally. What is more, it is a sea change which places programmes like Big Brother right at the centre of what is happening.

Personally I don't watch Big Brother, or any of its various derivatives. Nor, to my extreme relief, do I feel any need to keep up with the soap operas. I recall reading a book years ago which described TV as the ultimate "psychic energy sink", and although I watch a hell of a lot of it, I think that's right.

However, I do think that Big Brother (the TV show) deals with a real question, a question worth reflecting upon. And that question is: what happens to, you know, life, when there are TV cameras trained on it twenty four hours per day? What happens to manners? What happens to the rules of how we ought to behave? What happens to the judgements we make of other people? When we see someone we know, and perhaps later meet up with, masturbating on camera, or scratching his bum, or having a seriously bad hair day, or cheating (maybe, hard to tell) on his wife, how should we then conduct ourselves?

These seem to me to be questions well worth preparing ourselves for.

Big Brother is closely linked to the also much complained about "cult of celebrity".

But the "cult" of celebrity – which is really just being extremely interested in the lives of celebrities – seems to me to reflect the exact same pre-occupations as the reality TV shows. Celebrities are the people who are already enduring total surveillance. Their triumphs and agonies as they either try to dodge the cameras, or as they make rude finger gestures at them, or else as they try to be dignified when on them, are a taste of what the rest of us may have to be deciding about in years to come. Now the Beckhams, tomorrow it'll be us on camera. How do the Beckhams handle it? How will we?

Popular culture is often dismissed as trivia and nonsense, by the guardians of "culture" in the more elevated sense of that word. But then these same guardians look back on the trivia and nonsense of earlier times, and suddenly they see that those despicably low-browed masses were actually dealing with deadly serious questions which the entire world and its various Presidents and Prime Ministers are now having to deal with in deadly earnest.

Take all those slam bang adventure movies of the nineteen eighties. I recall a wonderful fake cinema trailer done by some British TV comedians which advertised a movie called, simply, "Things Exploding". Ho ho. And it was true. The collective sub-conscious did seem to be unnaturally obsessed with (a) huge and dramatic bangs, and in general, disasters of all kinds, and (b) how people should react to them. Well, in the era of Al Qaeda, this suddenly doesn't seem quite so moronic and down market, now does it? Suddenly the world is filled, for real, with, if not an abundance of actual bangs, then at the very least the vastly heightened fear of such bangs, in official and respectable circles.

I believe that the exact same pattern will unfold with total surveillance. The "official" debate about this takes the form of saying either that we've got to have it (the government line), or that it's creepy (White Rose).

Meanwhile the masses are off on a quite different tack. Instead of arguing about whether it should happen, they have simply accepted that, just like all those big bangs and disasters, it is going to happen, and for them, the question is: how do we live with it?

I believe that the masses are right. I have no problem with trying to help my White Rose friends in what they are trying to do with occasional postings, for I certainly believe that the matter of how total surveillance is done is extremely important. But I am with the masses in pretty much believing that it will happen. To ask how we can stop it is futile. What really matters is: how will we live with it?

To put it another way, the important discussions about total surveillance are at least as much Brian's Culture Blog matters as they are White Rose matters.

End of part one. As so often with blogging, you blog away for twenty minutes, setting the scene and clearing away the undergrowth, as it were, for what you really want to get stuck into. But when you have, and are ready to get seriously started, you have actually finished a perfectly decent posting, which it makes sense to draw to a close.

If I want to pursue this, and I really really do, I will, but not here and not now.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:55 PM
May 29, 2003
Games now taking the technological lead

I know less than nothing about computer games, but I am acutely aware that for a cultural commentator this is a serious defect. Computer games are now (you have only to look in the racks at Blockbuster) a huge, huge deal, now making up blah per cent of the GNP, etc.

For a symptom of how huge they are, take a read of this:

As perhaps the clearest evidence yet of the computing power of sophisticated but inexpensive video-game consoles, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has assembled a supercomputer from an army of Sony PlayStation 2's.

The resulting system, with components purchased at retail prices, cost a little more than $50,000. The center's researchers believe the system may be capable of a half trillion operations a second, well within the definition of supercomputer, although it may not rank among the world's 500 fastest supercomputers.

Read, as they say, the whole thing. Thanks to Daryl Cobranchi for the link.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:21 PM
May 20, 2003
Copyrights and copywrongs on Samizdata

There have been a couple of interesting posts over at Samizdata about the whole vexed question of intellectual property rights, copyright, etc, one about a (revived apparently) scheme by the Disney corporation to try selling auto-destructive DVDs, basically so that you don't have to return your DVD to the rental store anymore. It lasts for two days and then you just chuck it away.

And the other was a more substantial piece about the whole attitude of libertarians (a category which includes me) towards the whole business of music file-copying, CD copying, etc.

The comments to these postings, especially to the second one, are a pretty good summary of the arguments that rage around this issue.

Is it worth this blog, with its miniscule trickle of writings and readers, flagging up two of the postings of a mighty gusher like Samizdata? Well, I like to think that there are some who come here but don't go there, and since stuff accumulates here more slowly, it may also be said to "last longer", so a connection from here to these two postings, soon to be under a pile of new Samizdata stuff, might be helpful. I hope so.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:36 PM
May 15, 2003
How the US military may spread Unix

Does Windows versus Unix count as "culture"? It's probably stretching things a bit, but this is my ego trip blog. My other place is for disciplined sticking to the point. And in any case, software is culture. Where is the serious aesthetic effort of a non-decadent sort now being made in our society? In the museums of modern art? Hardly. In the software dens is where. Why, I'm even working away myself at making this blog look nicer, and any month now …

Anyway, Peeve Farm has a nice bit about the software and automotive industries colliding, the point of which is that software folks (if they are Windows software folks) are free-wheelers who take chances to stay ahead of their competitors, while the carmakers don't like to take chances because when they do people die. Ditto the airplane and spaceship makers, only more so.

Contractors who write software for jetliners or the Air Force get to work under banners that say "When our software crashes, so does the plane"; you won't find those kinds of banners in Redmond. (One hopes there's a banner somewhere on the campus that says "Remember the Yorktown", but I'm not holding my breath.)

Yorktown. That was the one that got mended really, really quickly during the Battle of Midway, right? "Yorktown" was in link-lettering, so I went there. No, this Yorktown is Midway Yorktown's great grand-daughter, or some such, and a quite different ship.

Here's the story, from Wired:

Microsoft continues to trumpet the success of its NT operating system over Unix-based systems, the US Navy is having second thoughts about putting NT at the helm. A system failure on the USS Yorktown last September temporarily paralyzed the cruiser, leaving it stalled in port for the remainder of a weekend.

"For about two-and-a-half hours, the ship was what we call 'dead in the water,'" said Commander John Singley of the Atlantic Fleet Surface Force.

The warship was testing its new Snart Ship system, which uses off-the-shelf PCs to automate tasks that sailors have traditionally done themselves. "The Navy started the Smart Ship program with three essential goals in mind: improve combat readiness, reduce crew workload and operating costs, and to do it safely," said Singley.

The Smart Ship program is still in development, and officials said glitches are to be expected, but in this case the problem appeared to be more political than technical. Using Microsoft's Windows NT operating system in such a critical environment, some engineers said, was a bad move.

"The simple root of the problem on Yorktown was that politics were played in the assigning of the contract -- there was not a discussion of engineers, it was just a very small group of people pitching for it," said an engineer close to the project, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In a statement issued this week on why NT was chosen over Unix, the Navy said that while Windows NT was specified in the Statement of Work as the operating system for the workstations in question, other components of a coming upgrade will primarily utilize Unix-based systems.

"They rushed this stuff on the ship, there was no real prototype, and then they tried to make things work as they went along," the source said. "I don't think that Unix or NT were ever really evaluated -- it was just somebody thinking this was good, with no knowledge."

The statement said that Unix is still being considered for future Smart Ship technologies, acknowledging that many systems already utilize Unix-based systems and that a "government team is currently researching the best technical and financial solution[s] ... of which the decision to use Windows NT or Unix will play a major role."

My understanding, which is kindergarten level but which does exist, is that Unix is pretty good for running something like a warship, while Windows is seriously bad. Windows is cheap and messy, for allowing cheap and messy people like me to have something almost as pretty looking as a Mac which will be able to do most of what I want cheaply and messily, without always having to dive down into the code and be a geek.

They still haven't got Unix working as a non-geek civilian alternative to Windows. But if you are running, or trying to run, a "tight ship" of some kind – such as, e.g., a ship – which has a predictable and listable list of functions that the system has to do anddo right, then Unix is definitely preferable to Windows. You have the money to bring in the expertise to set everything up shipshape, and you should.

I did a piece a week or two back about the educational edge that having a big military may be providing to the USA in the form of a society that is permeated with military procedures and military habits of organisation and training. Europe has had this for centuries, but has now lost it, and it could make for a deeply ignorant Europe. That was the speculation.

And I further speculate that the military superiority of Unix could be a more particular thing that spreads outwards from the US military to the wider society. This Yorktown story is a story of the temporary pollution of naval discipline by civilian sloppiness. I surmise that, the US military being the US military, the permanent influences are more likely to flow in the opposite direction. The USA will in due course make the big Windows-to-Linux switch under the influence of a generation of ex-military types who learnt, the hard way, that Linux is in lots of ways (crucially in being more "solid" and less crash-prone, but also being less virus-threatened) better than Windows, and who have learned how to make it work, or failing that who know of someone they bunked with during Gulf War 3 who can make it work. Surely one of the guys now wrestling with applying Unix to missile systems or satellites or submarines or inventory will demob, and finally crack the problem of that Linux front-end-good-enough-for-civilians which keeps being promised but which never seems to materialise. The US military may not have that many people in it at any one time, but the total number of people who pass through it is huge, and more and more of those will be using and learning about computers.

The blogosphere is full of people who combine geekness with humanity to a degree that surpasses me on both fronts, and some of them may be able to comment usefully. I'm sure that to lots of folks what I've just put has been obviously true, or obviously false, or obviously oversimplified for years now. But other culture blog readers, the artsy types, might be worth reaching on all this. If you do comment though, remember who you're writing at.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:41 PM
January 29, 2003
The flat screen explosion

One of these decades I really must sort out how to put pictures up on my blogs. It's easy. It must be. Everyone else does it without apparent catastrophe. And how can I be doing a culture blog without making use of this elementary procedure, to illustrate my profound opinions? No doubt for several weeks, months or years you will be able to witness my answer.

In the meantime, these people seem to know how to display pictures. Try going here, and clicking on the picture to the right.

This kind of electronic picture displaying is only in its infancy. For consider this. One of the consumer toys now doing the Price Plummet is none other than the flat screen TV.

I've been pondering this, and I think we are about to witness something very interesting, domestic-decoration-wise.

Who says you only have to have one TV screen per room?

I can remember when it was assumed that you could only have one TV screen per house. Then, some brave soul said to himself, and more to the point to his pestilential teenage children: you know what, you brats can have your own TVs in your bedrooms, then we can all watch what we want.

But now with these flat screen TVs, we can soon have them hanging on our walls in great assemblages. If a really good flat screen TV cost £50 instead of a minimum of about a £1,000, I'd have a couple on my living room wall, where the print-outs of my digital photos now go. And since the market for these gizmos is going to be absolutely huge beyond belief, they'll probably be down to £20 in no time at all.

For years I missed the point of these things. I used to think: So? They save a bit of space? I can now put a bit of crap behind my TV screen and a bit more crap behind my computer screen. A total of about fifty books or so. But this is totally to miss the point, which is that a flat screen is a completely different and infinitely more flexible object. It's not that it saves space. It's that it doesn't take up any more space in the first place, except wall space. It's a replacement not only for your pregnant TV and computer screens. It's a replacement for all you pictures.

I will buy one and sort out how to display pictures (mine and Michelangelo's) on it, and who knows what else besides? Ultra favorite movies or movie scenes with the sound-track off? Silent movies? Then when they are really cheap, I'll turn my home into an art gallery. (Personal computers will have to learn how to control a hundred screens rather than just one, I think.)

Question: Will "art galleries" go the way of provincial repertory theatres when TV came along?

No. And I'll tell you all about why some other time.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:40 PM